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A Review of International Multi-Stakeholder Frameworks for Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism Online

A Review of International Multi-Stakeholder Frameworks for Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism Online
16th March 2022 Maddie Cannon
In Insights

In the last ten years, there has been a significant increase in multi-stakeholder forums working to create self-regulatory practices for tech companies on the topic of countering terrorism and violent extremism online. One such forum is The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), the funding body behind GNET’s research. GIFCT was founded by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube in 2017, to “foster technical collaboration among member companies, advance relevant research, and share knowledge with smaller platforms” to prevent terrorists and violent extremists from exploiting digital platforms. GIFCT’s efforts have evolved in conjunction with other initiatives such as the Aqaba Process, the EU Internet Forum (EUIF), the Christchurch Call to Action (CCA), the Bergen Plan of Action, and a project run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – all of which were similarly launched to combat the circulation of terrorist and violent extremist content (TVEC) online and improve the preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) efforts of tech companies.

In my capacity at GIFCT, a frequently asked question from member companies revolves around the purpose and goals of these international voluntary frameworks, and how they overlap and work with GIFCT. Using publicly available information, supported by short interviews with representatives from each initiative, this Insight serves as a chronological overview of the aforementioned international voluntary frameworks aimed at facilitating tech companies to improve their P/CVE efforts and counter TVEC online. The aim is to create a wide-reaching understanding of these international mechanisms and build a top-line understanding for stakeholders who wish to get involved in solution-building efforts related to countering terrorism and violent extremism online.

The Aqaba Process

Led by King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein of Jordan, the Aqaba Process “provides a forum to exchange ideas and best practices and explores coordination gaps in the global approach to combatting terrorism and radicalisation.” While foundational convenings have focussed largely on counterterrorism with a special focus on the online environment, since 2020 topics related to wider security threats have also diversified. The changing security landscape and geopolitical challenges engendered by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as rising unemployment, food insecurity and lack of social cohesion have been discussed amongst participants during meetings. This suggests the Process may be broadening its scope beyond tackling terrorism and violent extremism towards a more holistic effort to bolster the resiliency of the global community against emerging threats.

It remains one of the only international convening bodies on this topic outside of Western democratic-based efforts, bringing a wider range of governments to the table to discuss adversarial shifts and trends on counterterrorism. It acts more as an important, high-level convening body than a voluntary framework in some respects. That being said, there is limited publicly-available information about the Aqaba Process online, despite it being a key convening power prioritising issues and facilitating global collaborations in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism. Whereas other initiatives have websites that centralise information surrounding their mission, funding and organisational structure, most of the information available online about the Aqaba Process can be found in journalistic articles from regional and international newspapers reporting on the proceedings of Aqaba Process meetings.

The EU Internet Forum

  • Founded: 2015
  • Lead governmental body: European Commission
  • Core goal: Address the challenges posed by the spread of TVEC and child sexual abuse (CSA) material online.

The EU Internet Forum is a voluntary framework providing a collaborative environment for EU governments, tech platforms and other relevant organisations to address the misuse of the Internet through two main strands of action: reducing accessibility to harmful content and increasing the volume of effective counter-narratives online. The EUIF’s objectives are implemented at an EU policy level, encouraging collaboration and open dialogue between EU member states and external stakeholders to understand current challenges and develop innovative tools and solutions to stop the spread and impact of TVEC online.

The EUIF is chaired and funded by the European Commission and includes active participants from notable European institutions, major global tech companies, and CSOs. Ministerial meetings take place annually, and representatives supporting the Forum’s activities continue to meet throughout the year. The notes from the last meeting of 2021 and the Forum’s planned outcomes for 2022 can be found on the EUIF’s newly-updated webpage. 

Since its launch, the EUIF has pushed forward a number of initiatives aiming to mitigate the impact of TVEC online within the EU: the EU Internet Referral Unit; the Civil Society Empowerment Program (CSEP); the EU Crisis Protocol; and the Terrorist Content Online Regulation. In addition, one of the EUIF’s main deliverables of 2021 was the development of a knowledge package of violent right-wing extremist organisations, symbols and manifestos in collaboration with Member States and trusted researchers from the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). While not yet public, the knowledge package will provide guidance to the tech industry and aid the moderation of violent right-wing extremist content online.

The Christchurch Call

  • Founded: 2019
  • Lead governments: New Zealand and France
  • Core goal: Eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.

Two months after the 2019 terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 51 people lost their lives, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and French President Emmanuel Macron, brought together national and tech leaders to adopt the Christchurch Call to Action (CCA). The CCA “rests on the conviction that a free, open and secure internet offers extraordinary benefits to society,” and hence sets forth a series of collective, voluntary commitments from governments and internet service providers to “eliminate [TVEC] online” in a manner consistent with human rights and fundamental freedoms. As of February 2022, the CCA is supported by 55 national governments including the European Commission; the Council of Europe, UNESCO, and 10 leading online service providers.

The Christchurch Call Advisory Network (CCAN) was formed to provide advice and consultation to the CCA community and facilitate global multi-stakeholder collaboration. The CCAN is composed of 50 members representing a range of expertise and perspectives drawn from civil society, though it is not clear through public-facing information the process through which these members are chosen and by whom.

At present, the CCA is actively recruiting companies and countries that align with its core principles of transparency; respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; and the belief in a free, open and secure Internet. In joining the community, governments and tech companies are invited to participate and contribute towards discussion and meetings focused on transparency, algorithmic processes, crisis response and civil society engagement. The aim of CCA convenings is to create a space for governments and tech companies to engage with civil society on high-level strategic guidance and hear from a range of perspectives from industry experts. Additionally, the Christchurch Call team is developing and refining crisis response protocols, employed to respond swiftly and effectively in the event of a terrorist attack and/or of viral terrorist content online.

OECD Multi-stakeholder work on Voluntary Reporting Frameworks (VTRF)

In a project supported by Australia, Canada, Korea and New Zealand, the OECD published two reports in 2020 and in 2021 providing insight into the current state of play regarding the TVEC policies and procedures of world-leading online platforms and content-sharing services, transparency reporting of these platforms, and how they changed over the course of a year. Written by Dr Tomas Llanos of University College London under the guidance of Jeremy West of the OECD, these reports provide background context for the OECD’s development of a Voluntary Transparency Reporting Framework (VTRF) and standardised reporting template for TVEC online.

The VTRF is meant to be a product of efforts led by the OECD “in collaboration with member countries, business, civil society and academia, to develop a multi-stakeholder, consensus-driven framework” for voluntary transparency reporting by companies. The reporting template is the work of 60+ global experts from across sectors and disciplines, and aims to “make it possible to aggregate and compare reported information on [TVEC] across platforms, while helping to address the inefficiency of regulatory fragmentation.” At present, the framework remains classified, and at present, it is not yet publicly known what the baseline or extended metrics will look like. It is projected to launch in early 2022 first as a paper version, then later in the form of a web portal, allowing companies to access and implement the framework more easily.

The Bergen Plan of Action

  • Founded: 2021
  • Organising body: Khalifa-Ihler Institute
  • Core goal: Build upon, embed and enact collaborative work, establish global networks, institutions and policies to combat TVEC online in a manner respectful of human rights.

The Bergen Plan of Action was launched in August 2021 by the Khalifa-Ihler Institute and the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right at the ‘22 July at Ten’ international counterterrorism summit which commemorated ten years since the terrorist attacks in Oslo and Utøya in 2011. The recommended actions outlined in the Plan are the outcome of discussions, Q&A sessions and closed-door workshops facilitated during the summit among leading global stakeholders committed to countering terrorism and violent extremism.

It outlines “five steps for a collaborative, multi-stakeholder approach among governments, tech platforms and civil society organisations aimed at helping tackle the spread of [TVEC] and mitigating the rising rates of online radicalisation.” These include (1) The invocation and application of a whole-of-society approach to incitement of violent extremism and terrorism; (2) The establishment of a college of moderators in a multitude of languages and cultural contexts while also upholding human rights; (3) The development of a rapid response task force to support local authorities in the event of a real-life terror attack; (4) The establishment of a global support hub for CSOs committed to creating a safer Internet and targeting all stages of online radicalisation; and (5) The formation of a tech innovation fund aimed at producing solutions for best practice research and threat analysis, with the goal of supporting the four above steps.

Still in its early stages of development, the Plan is currently being managed by the Khalifa-Ihler Institute, which is in the process of finalising output from stakeholder meetings before taking the Plan forward to a point where it can be officially delivered and adopted by supporters. While the other initiatives tend to be government-run and funded, the Bergen Plan of Action was founded by CSOs, and therefore must seek external funding. As such, it is not yet known who will fund, support or take up responsibility for the Plan’s actions. However various intergovernmental bodies, national governments and private sector organisations have expressed interest in the Plan, and willingness to finance the actions outlined above.

Conclusion

This Insight was intended to briefly outline the variety of international voluntary frameworks putting momentum behind mitigating the detrimental effects of TVEC online and improving the P/CVE efforts of tech companies. Some of these efforts are highly transparent about their mission, structure, and achievements, namely the Christchurch Call and the EUIF, while others are less available for public consumption – perhaps due to their organising body, financial backers or relative newness as an initiative. From a solutions-driven and policy perspective, it is important to note that the challenge of tackling TVEC online is adversarial and ever-evolving. However, the progress made by these initiatives since their inception is encouraging.  It is important to note that each initiative is cognisant of other existing frameworks, and therefore aims to establish dialogue and cooperation to avoid duplication; they aim for an open and collaborative structure inclusive of a range of perspectives in a true multi-stakeholder fashion.